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Sherraine Schalm’s wit sharp as her sword

Fencer Sherraine Schalm is a character. Where other elite athletes talk about giving a 110 per cent or taking it one game at a time, the fencer is engaging and insightful.

After the Olympics, the fencer will return to writing her novel

Sherraine Schalm, celebrating a win at the 2005 world championships in Germany, took up fencing in Grade 7. ((Jacques Demarthon/Getty Images) )

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When Alan Nelson met future Olympian Sherraine Schalm, he was a fencing coach and she was a little kid with a big attitude.  

Schalm was a student at a grade school across the parking lot from the junior high school in southeast Alberta where Nelson taught fencing fundamentals. She spotted the weedy instructor and called out to him: "Hey, Skinny! Have you got a fencing club?"  

Schalm is as much a character today as she was then. Where other elite athletes talk about "giving a 110 per cent" or "taking it one game at a time," the fencer is engaging and insightful.

A year after their memorable meeting, Nelson was teaching Schalm to lunge and parry. 

"Being the youngest of five kids, it was natural for me to want to hang around with cool older people," Schalm explains. "Alan was one of those people. Thank goodness he did something fun because I would have hated to join the school marching band," she says, adding, "Oh, wait. I did that too."   

50 countries, three Olympics

But seriously folks, there was more to her decision to take up fencing than the gravitational pull of a coach. "I guess I was just the type of kid who wanted to do something different," Schalm admits. "Luckily, that something has led me around the world, through 50 countries, and to three Olympics."  

Schalm competed at the 2000 Sydney Games, placing 19th in the individual epee. She placed 18th in the individual epee at the 2004 Athens Games and fourth in the team event.  

A year later, she won a bronze medal at the world championships in Germany, becoming the first Canadian to land on the podium at the annual event. In 2006, Schalm won the overall World Cup title, another first for a Canadian.  

Now ranked fifth in the world, Schalm won a recent World Cup event and beat the top-ranked player in the process. That makes her a strong medal contender at the Beijing Games.  

Still, Schalm says she isn’t the fastest or strongest fencer in the world. She attributes her success to other qualities.  

"My brain can make up for what my body lacks. If someone is faster, I can be smarter. If my opponent is faster and smarter, I can be crazy and freak her out so she hesitates," says Schalm. "If my opponent is faster, smarter and more crazy, I would have to call it a day."

Waiting for the perfect urine sample

As an elite athlete, Schalm is subjected to out-of-competition drug testing. 

Doping officers approached her during a training session in Sweden a few years ago. Her urine was too diluted to meet standards so they waited for nature to take its course. 

"The gym was closing so they came to my hostel with me. My teammates were cooking dinner when we arrived, and we ended up sharing our food with the officers," she recalls. The officers would not let the fencer out of their sight, even when she showered. They left when she provided a better sample. 

Schalm says the entire experience was distracting and counter-productive. She is convinced there is a better way. "A two-day warning would allow us to plan our time better. That could work because drugs can’t leave your system that quickly," she says.  

"I heard through [the Canadian Olympic Committee’s athlete advisory body] that, starting in January, we will have to designate one hour every day in which we can be tested. Perhaps a better option would be for us to wear ankle bracelets like hardened criminals out on parole. Goodness knows, that is how we are perceived."  

Few people would accuse Schalm of taking performance-enhancing drugs – fencing emphasizes technique and strategy rather than raw power or endurance – and fewer still would deny she has a way with words.  

Sherraine Schalm, in a pensive moment at the 2004 Athens Games, has written a memoir. ((Canadian Press))
Encouraged to write a book

After hearing Schalm on CBC radio before the Athens Games, publishing consultant Peter Taylor sent the fencer an email. He praised her storytelling skills and suggested she consider writing a book.  

"She responded a day later," Taylor recalls. "She said she was thrilled to be recognized for something other than running around poking people."  

A year later, Schalm submitted the manuscript for her memoir to Canadian publisher Fitzhenry & Whiteside. She then went on a national book tour to promote, "Running with Swords."  

Schalm is pleased her experiences have been recorded in print. "That way, I can never exaggerate when I’m old and retired from fencing," she explains. "So when I say, ‘I remember beating a French fencer 15-0,’ my grandchildren will say, ‘But Grandma, we read in your book you only won because the other fencer tested positive for drugs!’" 

When she is not training or competing, she is working on a novel. It is set in present-day Canada. "You can find out the rest when it’s published," she teases. "If it never gets published, call me in five years and I’ll explain the plot to you."  

Schalm, who writes a blog for CBCSports.ca, hopes to pursue a career in journalism. Taylor thinks it would be a good decision. "Sherraine is a gifted storyteller," he says, "and that woman can do anything she sets her mind to." 

Right now her sights are set on the Beijing Games, and on surpassing her performance in Athens.  

Millions of Canadians will be following the action, no one more closely than her first coach. "Sherraine has become one of my best friends," Nelson says. "I still call her ‘The Mouth on Legs.’"  

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